Andrei Holman

Andrei Holman

The Social Representa1ons of Beauty and Esthe1c

Surgery: a cross – cultural analysis

Andrei Holman

Research background

• Jodelet (1984): the S.R. are a “privileged subject

maKer” regarding the body as a “product of

techniques and representa1ons”

• Dual nature of the body: personal / socio-­‐cultural

Jodelet (2004)

Background scenario

• The private (subjec1ve) body: studies on “body

schema”, body image.

• The social body: one’s body experiences and prac1ces

rely upon various Social Representa1ons

• Both sides – strongly advocated in the feminist

socio-­‐cultural studies: “the ul1mate symbol of

invasion of the human body for the sake of physical

beauty” (Gimlin, 2000, p.80).

– Aesthe1c surgery: an act of surrender to unaKainable

ideals of beauty

Background scenario

• The women: trapped in the ideological gender-­‐biased net that

ensures the male domina1on

• One of the cultural traps: the S.R. of beauty as “feminine

duty” at any cost – the radical perspec1ve

• The private / subjec1ve body doesn't exist: “personal is


• “societal Stockholm syndrome” (Graham, 1994, p. 57): women

iden1fy the interests of their dominators as their own

Background scenario

• Culturally induced body anxiety

• Plas1c surgery: self -­‐mu1la1on “by proxy”

(Jeffreys, 2005)

• The s1gmata of the inferior : 80% of the pa1ents

are women, most of the plas1c surgeons are men

• The increasing scien1fic and cultural

“pathologisa1on” of non-­‐standard looks

– Body-­‐weight – obesity –“hypo-­‐mas1a” (Berry, 2007)

Background scenario

• The anchoring of plas1c surgery in power

rela1onships goes beyond gender:

– Breast augmenta1on – post-­‐war Japan

– “ethnic plas1c surgery” -­‐Italian and Jewish nose jobs in

order to fit American beauty norms

– The propor1on ideals in plas1c surgery handbooks (e.g.

“Propor+ons of the Aesthe+c Face”) – based on a

white, Western aesthe1c of feminine beauty (Balsamo,


Background scenario

• The liberal feminist perspec1ve: aesthe1c surgery

offers “a degree of control over their lives in

circumstances where there are very few other

opportuni1es for self-­‐realiza1on” (Negrin, 2002, p.22)

– “The survival of the pre;est”

• OR a way to become “normal”

• OR a way to express one's “true iden1ty”

– Cosme1c surgery as simply another form of


Background scenario

• The connec1on to psychological improvement –

formulated by one of the first plas1c aesthe1c


• Jacques Joseph (1896): “a means of repairing not

the body but the psyche” (Frank, 1998, p. 105)

Background scenario

• In the modern medical literature on ideal

propor1ons (e.g. “the golden number”): all

humans have the poten1al to develop their body

according to such propor1ons

– But various factors interfere with this harmonious


– Aesthe1c surgery -­‐ “deliver us from ugliness”

Background scenario

• But aesthe1c surgery offers a technological

solu1on to a psychological problem

• Interven1on in iden1ty – “self -­‐ estrangement”

• Disassocia1on from the body – psychiatric


– Mass-­‐media portrayals of aesthe1c surgery pa1ents –

vain, narcissis1c, psychological maladjusted (Delinsky,


Background scenario

• YET: clinical studies: in 1960 – high rates of

psychopathology; in 1990 -­‐ comparable to normal

controls in terms of overall psychological status

• cosme1c-­‐surgery pa1ents have greater feature-­‐

specific body-­‐image dissa1sfac1on, but not

necessarily global body-­‐image dissa1sfac1on

(Didie & Sarwer, 2003)


• Aesthe1c surgery – at the same 1me social prac+ce

and object of S.R.

• As social prac1ce -­‐ related to beauty, given:

– the shil in perspec1ve on the body (“fragmented body”),

– the various social dynamics in which aesthe1c surgery is


– the rapid growth of the aesthe1c surgery industry (10%

each year)


• The situa1on (the increasing “populariza1on”

“democra1za1on” of aesthe1c surgery) could be

defined as “irreversible” (Flament, 1989), and thus

should generate significant changes in the S.R. of


Research goals

1. synchronic cross-­‐cultural analysis in 3

countries samples with different

degrees of diffusion of esthe=c surgery

(Romania, Italy, Spain)

Research background

• In Romania, before 1989, there were only around

30 plas1c (reconstruc1ve) surgeons

• The first private aesthe1c surgery clinic opened in


– In 1995: 17 clinics, each with 3 clients per week

– Es1mated market growth: 18 – 20% / year

– 20% of the clients are men

Research goals

2. To inves1gate the rela=onships between

social representa=ons of feminine &

male beauty and esthe=c surgery

1 st Mul1-­‐Method Study

• Instrument 1: Associa1ve Network (de Rosa, 1994) using as

inductor phrases:

– Masculine beauty

– Feminine beauty

– Surgery

– Aesthe1c surgery

• Involvement level (in the topic of aesthe1c surgery) scale –

personal relevance

• Self – aKrac1veness scale

• Self Iden1fica1on Conceptual Network

• Country:

– Italy / Spain / Romania

• University Educa1on:

– Sports / Arts / Informa1cs

• Gender :

– Male / Female

• Level of self – rated aKrac1veness:

– low / high


• Level of involvement in the topic of plas1c surgery :

– low / high

• Iden1fica1on referents (from the Self Iden1fica1on Conceptual Network):

Self Iden1fica1on Conceptual Network


GREEN Lines =

posi1ve associa1ons

RED lines =

nega1ve associa1ons

3 degrees of

significant associa1on:

1. < 1.5

2. 1.5 – 2

3. > 2


GREEN Lines =

posi1ve associa1ons

RED lines =

nega1ve associa1ons

3 degrees of

significant associa1on:

1. < 1.5

2. 1.5 – 2

3. > 2


GREEN Lines =

posi1ve associa1ons

RED lines = nega1ve


3 degrees of

significant associa1on:

1. < 1.5

2. 1.5 – 2

3. > 2

Modeling Approach:

a mul=-­‐step variable defini=on

• in the following stage of mul=-­‐steps data

analysis, we used as independent variable the

specific self-­‐iden1fica1on category of each

par1cipant -­‐ specific iden=ty reference

• technically, we assigned each subject to the

category towards which he / she had the

maximum standardized z score, computed inside

his / her na1onal sample

• this maximum z score reflected the strongest

iden1fica1on of the par1cipant, in the context of

his / her na1onal sample

• then, we selected only the reference categories which

contain at least 10% of par1cipants, in order to ensure

a greater validity of the differences to be no1ced

among them

• we were lel with 5 reference categories: body,

nature, soul, culture, beauty

• we distributed the par1cipants in all the other

categories to the selected ones, by recalcula1ng the z-­‐

scores only for the selected set, and reassigning each

par1cipant on the same criterion of the maximum z-­‐


Results from the Associa1ve Networks:

I. Masculine beauty

Lexical correspondence analysis

• ac=ve variable: country

• illustra=ve (“passive”) variables:

– gender

– faculty

– level of self-­‐rated aKrac1veness

– level of involvement

– specific iden1fica1on category (from the Self

Iden1fica1on Network)

Results from the Associa1ve Networks: Masculine beauty

Red: words ac1ve variables; Green: significant illustra1ve variables

Masculine beauty: Italy

Masculine beauty: Italy

• a “classical” view on masculine beauty, with a strict

reference to exterior landmark elements – shirt,

beard, six_pack, and also to the necessary

psychological traits that accompany and complete it:

arrogance, confidence, vanity, charm, pusng it “to

work” in the interpersonal realm.

• It’s a vision close to other three consonant categories

of par1cipants (illustra1ve variables): males, mostly in

the Sports faculty, who tend to iden1fy more with the

body as a reference, but also with beauty.

Masculine beauty: Romania

Masculine beauty: Romania

• a mul1ple discourse: on one side, a conscious view on the social

rewards of masculine beauty – money, success, but also on its

supplementary musts-­‐have (a;tude, clothing, talk, elegance).

• on the other – a cri1que of the same social condi1oning of

masculine beauty: idiot, tv

• probably derived also from the two illustra1ve variables

associated – the iden1fica1on with nature and soul, as opposites

of the social fabric which contaminates beauty

• the connec1on to nature as a iden1ty reference probably

underlines another defini1on of masculine beauty, as a “return

to basics”, in terms of body, young and special

Masculine beauty: Spain

Masculine beauty: Spain

• a discourse mostly in terms of exterior characteris1cs:

dark skin, tall, body, back, with a clear aesthe1c

perspec1ve – aIrac+ve, sensual, handsome.

• a defini1on of a stereotyped and roman1cized

modern male (the term man is also present), with

appealing quali1es especially to the females (as a

iden1fica1on referent), and to those with a stronger

iden1fica1on with soul.

Feminine beauty

Lexical correspondence analysis

Feminine beauty: Italy

Feminine beauty: Italy

• mainly, a double discourse on the same topic: beauty


• on one side, a clear physical discourse (physical, feet,

face, posture, hair, hands, gym);

• on the other, a view conscious of the interpersonal

nature of beauty, centered around the elements

which serve as a vehicle towards the perceiver –

glance, charm, provoking, voice, sensuality, sweet,

sensi+ve -­‐ and his reac1ons to beauty – joy, envy.

– This complex view is shared mostly by those with the

highest iden1fica1on with beauty as a cultural referent,

and is a product, mostly, of male par1cipants.

– Yet, the image is not posi1ve altogether – there is also the

nuance of stupid.

Feminine beauty: Romania

Feminine beauty: Romania

• a mixed view, between the references to:

• external, general characteris1cs (the radical

perspec1ve), as health, youth, natural – hence its

associa1on to nature as an iden1fica1on category

• or to personal quali1es which refuse any physical

anchoring of beauty – unique, special, a;tude

• and a socialized and sexualized view – sex, sexy,

success, money.

Feminine beauty: Spain

Feminine beauty: Spain

• on one side, an extensive set of stereotype

physical characteris1cs – tall, breasts, tan, lips,

slim, blonde, skin – assumed also by the female


• on the other, an internal defini1on, based on

enduring traits – sincere, delicate, some of them

with a feminist root: force, grace, even woman.

• This split view is shared also by those with a

stronger iden1ty associa1on to soul.

Results from the Associa1ve Networks: esthe=c surgery

Lexical correspondence analysis


Aesthe=c Surgery: Italy

• preoccupa1on with the psychological correlates and,

generally, with the individual level of decision:

unsa+sfac+on, insecurity, necessity, change, old age,


– and with its real benefits: useless, useful

– “an expensive and failed technological solu1on to a

psychological problem”

• a perspec1ve shared by those with beauty as a iden1ty

reference, but also by the male par1cipants and the

students in the faculty of Sports.

Aesthe=c Surgery: Romania

Aesthe=c Surgery: Romania

• Aesthe1c surgery as mo1vated by despair or induced by the

mass-­‐media and the star / fame modern cultural system (thus its

associa1on to sexy);

– this view is endorsed by those par1cipants highly iden1fied with Nature,

as opposed to those from the Arts faculty, who challenge societal

aesthe1c stereotypes;

• From a descrip1ve point of view, it can be a correc+on of some

ugly features that provoke shame, but leaves scars instead

• It is unnatural (thus the associa1on with nature as iden1ty

category), requiring the opening of the body (blood), which

makes it repugnant

• a stronger personal evalua1on (stupid) and external aKribu1on

of the decision to undergo plas1c surgery

Aesthe=c Surgery: Spain

Aesthe=c Surgery: Spain

• minimizing the mo1va1ons (caprice, complex)

– yet, s1ll internal (similar to the Italian view)

• maximizing the nega1ve consequences (risk, pain)

-­‐ a more detached, prudent view (the widest diffusion of

the phenomenon is associated with more knowledge/

experience about nega1ve consequences)


• Specific cultural paKerns in Self-­‐Iden=fica=on

the connec1on I-­‐Aesthe1c Surgery is slightly Posi1ve in Spanish sample;

Absent in the Italian sample; Nega1ve in Romanian sample

• Connec1ons between the S.R. of beauty (masculine and feminine)

and the S.R. of aesthe=c surgery, with posi=oning of the groups not

only by the socio-­‐demographic variables considered, but also

according to the significant self-­‐iden=fica=on links

• Systema1c opposi1on of groups of subjects according to:

– iden1fica1on with (more nega1vely oriented towards

aesthe1c surgery) to those iden1fied with (more tolerant

toward aesthe1c surgery);

– students of Arts to those of Sport

– Iden=fica=on with Feminine and Masculine Beauty

• Connec1ons between the S.R. of beauty

(masculine and feminine) and the S.R. of aesthe=c




cultural peculiari=es

• beauty defined by its physical and interpersonal


• although nega1vely charged, esthe1c surgery

becomes an understandable op1on for those in

psychological need for an “update” of their beauty




cultural peculiari=es

• a vision of beauty of both genders gravita1ng around

the physical traits, yet with strong references to

personality stereotyped dimensions;

• in this context, aesthe=c surgery is integrated as a

personal choice of modifying specific beauty -­‐

relevant body parts, but keeping in mind, at the same

1me, its poten1al nega1ve consequences;


cultural peculiari=es


• nega1ve view of esthe1c surgery, as an unjus1fied

altera1on, falsifica1on of the natural prerequisites

of beauty

• a reasonable op1on only under social pressure,

but even then it carries the social s1gmata of the


• it evokes a more general psychological conflict

between the individual and the societal


shared representa1ons

Italy and Spain share:

• the internal, psychological aKribu1ons of the decision

• the financial considera1ons – money, expensive; this vision

is characteris1c to the par1cipants with culture as the

specific category of iden1fica1on

• the focus on specific body parts to be “improved” – nose,

breasts, buIocks

• A more personal rela1onship with the topic compared to

the Romanian sample, more focused on the socio-­‐cultural

dimension of the phenomenon and on the media pressure

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